Gender agenda

Dr Josephine Ojiambo


The Commonwealth is a leader in initiatives aimed at achieving gender mainstreaming and women’s empowerment

Pakistan parliament shutterstock_67703527

© Asianet-Pakistan /

The Commonwealth recognises poverty eradication; the protection and promotion of human rights; the strengthening of democracy; and gender equality as intrinsically interrelated to sustainable development. Gender equality is one of the fundamental values of the Commonwealth, as articulated in the Commonwealth Charter.

Globally, and within the Commonwealth, progress has been made in advancing women’s participation in development and democratic processes, yet challenges persist. On the political front, for example, according to UN Women, the percentage of women in parliament globally, has nearly doubled in the last 20 years. However, this only translates into 22 per cent of parliamentary seats going to women today. Furthermore, 20 years after the Beijing Declaration, women’s participation in leadership has only increased by ten per cent.

The Commonwealth is a leader in this space. According to recent data from 179 branches of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA), 28 parliaments and legislatures have reached the Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) target of 30 per cent representation of women, of which two have more than 50 per cent representation and nine have more than 40 per cent representation. Twenty-five CPA branches have representation between 20 and 30 per cent. However, 18 branches have no women members at all.

On the development front, the violation of women’s rights, as well as women’s access to economic opportunities, remain major concerns across the Commonwealth.  Despite concerted action over the years by a wide range of development actors and institutions, the feminisation of poverty has a Commonwealth face: 43 per cent of the world’s poorest are women of the Commonwealth.

Gender inequalities continue to persist across the Commonwealth, due to a wide range of fundamental factors, including lack of respect and understanding for the human rights of women; differential access to social and economic opportunities for women and men; and unequal representation and participation of women in decision-making and leadership. These issues, which are often interrelated, are exacerbated by weak and gender neutral policies, as well as inadequate systems and mechanisms for advancing commitments to and resolutions on gender equality.

Drawing on its body of work on gender equality, the Secretariat continues to facilitate reforms with tried and tested models, platforms for policy advocacy and technical support through four main approaches: promoting women’s political participation; broadening women’s access to economic opportunities and their involvement in economic decision making; promoting respect for the human rights of women; and gender mainstreaming.

The Secretariat’s work programmes aim to contribute to the reduction of structural, political, legal and economic barriers to achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment in Commonwealth member states, through policy dialogue, advocacy, knowledge sharing, publication and dissemination of research findings, best practice, and other gender-specific activities.

The Fifth Commonwealth Women’s Affairs Ministers Meeting (5WAMM) in Trinidad and Tobago in 1996 recommended that member countries be encouraged to achieve a target of no less than 30 per cent women in decision-making positions in the political, public and private sectors by 2005. A 2013 trends analysis conducted to review progress, found that, overall, women constitute 20.9 per cent of members of parliament (upper and lower houses) of the Commonwealth, almost identical to the global average of 20.8 per cent.

The more recent Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) figures, quoted above, show that Commonwealth member states continue to build on this progress in achieving the 30 per cent target. Yet, with the Sustainable Development Goals’ emphasis on achieving gender parity in political and economic decision making, the Commonwealth still has far to go when it comes to advancing women’s political participation.

Recognising that elections remain a critical opening for women to access political leadership, the Commonwealth Secretariat continues to support inclusive elections across its membership. Election observation mission reports increasingly assess the meaningful participation of women in the management and administration of the electoral process, as voters and as candidates, and offers recommendations for strengthening these roles.

Taking this a step further, the Secretariat has embarked on a research initiative to examine how key stakeholders – namely election management bodies (EMBs), political parties, the legislature, women leaders and aspirants – can be better supported to contribute to more gender inclusive elections across the Commonwealth.

In implementing this initiative in Commonwealth Africa, as the pilot phase, the Commonwealth has collaborated with the African Union in convening some of the above mentioned stakeholders to identify gaps and share strategies to increase the number of women in decision-making positions across the governance spectrum, and to improve the impact they make on development and democracy. Plans are underway to replicate this work across the rest of the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth has conducted pioneering work on issues such as women’s land rights, gender, peace and security, violence against women, gender and trade, and gender responsive budgeting. It is building on this legacy to enhance and influence global debates, resolutions and policy action on gender equality.

Moreover, the Commonwealth’s work on increasing women’s leadership in public service, corporate and government boards, has the potential to shape global discourse and advocacy for member states to achieve 30 per cent participation of women on boards.

In delivering its mandate on gender equality in this area, the Secretariat utilises a twin-track approach outlined in its institutional gender equality policy. Through its work programmes, the Secretariat promotes initiatives to influence and effect change in institutional policies and programmes to promote gender equality in development outcomes, and to ensure Commonwealth resources are allocated and managed accordingly.

The Secretariat’s current Strategic Plan identifies gender mainstreaming as a key priority and signals political commitment to mainstream gender in the Secretariat and within member countries in accordance with the Commonwealth Charter.

The launch of the Secretariat’s Gender Equality Policy in 2012 mandated the Secretariat to embed institutional gender mainstreaming and support member governments to do the same. It is anticipated that in the long term, institutional gender mainstreaming will be reflected in the gender results achieved by the Secretariat’s divisions in their programme delivery, and technical assistance provided to member states.

Furthermore, Secretariat staff will be trained on gender and development to support their efforts to mainstream gender effectively in programmes and project design. The Secretariat will continue to address the persistent challenges of gender equality and realise positive changes internally by operating the Secretariat’s Gender Equality Policy.

The Secretariat consolidates strategic partnerships within the Commonwealth family of organisations, as well as international organisations and civil society, among others, to promote gender equality. The CPA remains a key partner in supporting female parliamentarians. Likewise, the Commonwealth Local Government Forum is a critical actor in promoting gender equity at the grass roots.

The Secretariat recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with UN Women to maximise resources and focus on similar strategic priorities on women’s political participation, women’s economic empowerment, gender responsive budgeting, jurisprudence of equality on violence against women and girls, and distance learning education for girls. As indicated above, the Commonwealth has also initiated a partnership with the African Union to promote women’s political participation.

The Secretariat utilises its well-established Commonwealth platforms and high-level meetings, gender and women’s networks, including Commonwealth Connects, to share experiences and implement recommendations from forums such as: Women’s Affairs Ministerial Meetings (WAMMs); Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGMs); the inaugural Commonwealth Women’s Forum; and annual consultation with National Women’s Machineries (NWMs) in New York in the margins of the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

Looking ahead, while much work has been done in empowering women in the Commonwealth, reaching gender parity in both development and decision-making processes and opportunities requires the Commonwealth to go further: it must demonstrate how its interventions are resulting in inclusive participatory processes and improving the lives of women and girls.

The Commonwealth Plan of Action for Gender Equality, which expires in December 2015, has guided the organisation’s work to date. The ongoing evaluation of this plan provides yet another opportunity for the Commonwealth to align its priorities with the SDGs, and other Commonwealth commitments on gender equality and women’s empowerment.

About the author:

Dr Josephine Ojiambo is Deputy Secretary-General – Political. Yvonne Apea, Amelia Siamomua and Kemi Ogunsanya also contributed to this article, on behalf of the Commonwealth Secretariat


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